Temporal and spatial analysis of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances in surface waters of Houston ship channel following a large-scale industrial fire incident
By Noor A. Aly, Yu-Syuan Luo, Yina Liu, Gaston Casillas, Thomas J. McDonald, James M. Kaihatu, Mikyoung Jun, Nicholas Ellis, Sarah Gossett, James N. Dodds, Erin S. Baker, Sharmila Bhandari, Weihsueh A. Chiu, and Ivan Rusyn
June 16, 2020
Firefighting foams contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – a class of compounds widely used as surfactants. PFAS are persistent organic pollutants that have been reported in waterways and drinking water systems across the United States. These substances are of interest to both regulatory agencies and the general public because of their persistence in the environment and association with adverse health effects. PFAS can be released in large quantities during industrial incidents because they are present in most firefighting foams used to suppress chemical fires; however, little is known about persistence of PFAS in public waterways after such events. In response to large-scale fires at Intercontinental Terminal Company (ITC) in Houston, Texas in March 2019, almost 5 million liters of class B firefighting foams were used. Much of this material flowed into the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay (HSC/GB) and concerns were raised about the levels of PFAS in these water bodies that have commercial and recreational uses. To evaluate the impact of the ITC incident response on PFAS levels in HSC/GB, we collected 52 surface water samples from 12 locations over a 6-month period after the incident. Samples were analyzed using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry to evaluate 27 PFAS, including perfluorocarboxylic acids, perfluorosulfonates and fluorotelomers. Among PFAS that were evaluated, 6:2 FTS and PFOS were detected at highest concentrations. Temporal and spatial profiles of PFAS were established; we found a major peak in the level of many PFAS in the days and weeks after the incident and a gradual decline over several months with patterns consistent with the tide- and wave-associated water movements. This work documents the impact of a large-scale industrial fire, on the environmental levels of PFAS, establishes a baseline concentration of PFAS in HSC/GB, and highlights the critical need for development of PFAS water quality standards.